The novel follows Tilla, the bastard of Lord Kent of the Western Province, who witnesses a terrible crime and finds herself on the run with her half-brother Jax, a Zitochi warrior called Zell, Miles, the bastard of House Hampstedt, who’s been in love with her for years, and the Princess of Noveris, Lyriana. Pursued by mercenaries and Zell’s violent, psychopathic brother Razz, the group scours through the countryside attempting to find a place of safety and a way to protect the heir to the throne. As the group of bastards band together and grow closer, they realise that they alone are all that stands between the rise of a civil war that will tear the kingdom apart, and that they must find a way to warn the king. But first, they have to survive the journey.
Tilla was a fantastic protagonist and I enjoyed her character development. At the beginning of the novel, she was concerned only with gaining her father’s approval, but as the story progressed, she came to learn some hard truths about herself and her family. There were a few occasions of girl-on-girl hate, which irked me a little, but Tilla changed her ways and grew past that. Her wry character voice was the star of the novel for me, and there were many occasions I found myself laughing out loud at her thoughts and descriptions. Despite being a historical fantasy (and compared to Game of Thrones), the novel had a very modern tone and used a lot of 21st century idioms. It took a long while to wrap my head around this, but once I did, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the novel.
There is a suggestion of a love triangle in the novel, but it was also very obvious as to who Tilla would eventually choose. The budding romance between the two characters was pulled off adequately; the tender slow burn was very sweet and not at all in the reader’s face, but there were still a few scenes where I just didn’t believe how quickly Tilla fell for her love interest. That being said, I look forward to watching the romance develop even further in the next novel in the series.
I absolutely adored Jax, Tilla’s half-brother. He was one of the funniest characters in the novel, and incredibly loyal to Tilla. Shvarts expertly developed the sibling relationship; Tilla and Jax’s love for each other felt very genuine and I’m so glad we have a YA novel that promotes such an affectionate relationship between a brother and sister.
Zell was the second funniest character, but not by purpose: as a Zitochi warrior, he didn’t comprehend many aspects of the Western culture and his confusion resulted in many laugh-out-loud moments. Zell also had a touchingly depressing background story that deeply touched me, and I thought he was a wonderful, complex character.
Lyriana was a sweet girl, but I didn’t begin to really like her until the last quarter of the book. Granted, she was only 15, but her character didn’t felt very developed – she was more like an overenthusiastic puppy. However, she does turn into quite the little badass and I appreciated her steadfastness and dedication to her new friends. I also really respected the fact that Lyriana is POC and that Shvarts continually brought this up. In fact, the rulers of the Kingdom of Noveris were all people of colour – great job, Shvarts! (Take note, other fantasy authors!)
Like Lyriana and Tilla, Miles went through intense character development: he was a sweet, if annoying, character at the beginning of the story, but through the weeks they spend on the road, he grows. He was a pretty bland character, but was still an integral part of the group of bastards, as well as the story.
While I had a few issues with the characters, the world-building was astounding and was explained with great detail and finesse. As I read an uncorrected galley proof, I really hope the final copy of the novel contains a map so readers can enjoy the novel in its entirety. I also really appreciated the fact that this was not a sexist culture: women could hold high offices and enjoyed a significant freedom of sexuality (at least in the West and Zitochi lands). Thank you so much for that Shvarts! (Again: take note, other YA fantasy authors).
The novel was also surprisingly dark; considering the humour and modern tone, I expected the book to be a light adventure read. Boy, was I wrong! The novel took a dark turn at the 20% mark, which definitely assisted in my enjoyment of the story. There’s political intrigue, magic, castles and Royal Houses, assassinations, and an incredibly complex history that spans hundreds of years. In this, Royal Bastards could definitely be compared to Game of Thrones.
Royal Bastards was a fast-paced and entertaining novel. While the fantasy elements were developed quite wonderfully, I would still classify it as light fantasy and easy to read, especially if you are new to this genre. Shvarts is definitely an author to watch out for – especially with his fantastic treatment of women and people of colour – and I would certainly recommend this novel. It didn’t blow me away like I thought it would, but Royal Bastards was still an enjoyable read.